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Bioethics, statistics and the truth.

September 18, 2007

So a team of bioethicists at the Nuffield Council feel that the profiles of the innocent should not be retained on the DNA database. The Home Office response? Reel off a few statistics – they’re not accurate of course but who is going to check? Not the BBC or the Guardian. Technoscream does their job for them. This is the place for information you can trust.

Today’s report ‘The forensic use of bioinformation: ethical issues’ is a detailed study, and serves as an excellent guide to the many ethical and policy issues surrounding the database. The initial Home Office response, which is to quote statistics relating to the crimes apparently solved (note that the numbers refer to linkage of samples as opposed to convictions) is fairly predictable. Unfortunately they are also wrong. The statistics are taken directly from page 36 of their own report, linked previously on technoscream, and for the most part are accurately quoted. However, the number of crimes involved, which is fairly crucial, is actually 4000 rather than the 14000 quoted on the website of the BBC and the Guardian. Assuming that this is a misquote by the Home Office rather than the two journalists it does highlight the benefit of checking the facts. Remember this next time you hear an argument about the relative merits of amateur and professional content providers.

So one-nil to the bloggers. But the more important debate relates to the struggle between the technostate and the ethical and political arguments ranged against it. It is de rigeur for any technological development on this scale to bring a bioethicist on board at some stage, and there are plenty of people producing reports such as this; although not always of such a high quality. It has become a growing sub-industry within academia. There is definitely a danger of the inclusion of a bioethics angle adding a veneer of respectability and responsibility, much like the meaningless ‘carbon offsetting’ doing the rounds at the moment.

So will reports such as this have any impact? The answer probably lies with you and me.

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